Monday, April 25, 2016

Gas-baggers in the corporate world, a lot of hot air with no substance

Part 1 of this post appeared last week, click here to view

The world has many of them, few go by the title of “Consultant” and get around dropping big words in their trail that sound impressive; full of themselves and jargon, they love to hear their own voice at the smallest of opportunity. They also exude confidence that is unnerving and at times creates self-doubts in their audience. But consultants are not the focus of this narrative, it is the tribe that exists within an enterprise and has risen to the level of CXO or function head by virtue of their loud voices or that no one called their bluff.

He came with much fanfare talking about his illustrious past of having achieved greatness across companies globally in his field of operations as well as technology; the CFO’s arrival was the subject of much curiosity. Starting off with boastful achievements – none of which were verifiable – he attempted to dominate the IT team with smattering of gobbledygook that left the techies smarting in their effort to suppress their laughter. To the CIO and the team it was clear that they were going to have a tough time with their new Manager.

His knowledge knew no bounds; he had an opinion on everything from specialized solutions to highly specialized skills in manufacturing or for that matter on sales effectiveness. His position guaranteed that people listen to him especially if they were lower ranked; he showed off his superficiality using verbiage to subjugate those in front of him. Soon it was evident to everyone (management saw it as proactive behavior!) in the organization that he will poke his nose into every affair wanting to add value with anecdotes unbelievable most of the time.

I had filed a patent for a new way of marketing when working with this global FMCG company; did you know that we turned around the server farm in 24 hours; I had to sit with the technical staff and tell them how to write code; I crafted the new sales effectiveness process which turned the company around; why have you not considered a NAS solution, why are you wasting money on SAN; I could write this code in 3 days that you say will take 3 weeks; why does assembly line changeover take 14 hours, it should happen in 4 !

Surprisingly he never spoke about his own field of deemed expertise and left the Finance team busy asking for inane reports and correlations that had them wondering on the rationale behind the requests. Hiring incompetence around him, he ensured that the sycophants spread the word of his greatness around and showed open adulation in cross-functional meetings. Inaction by the IT team chastised for most of their actions by the Boss, started hurting key projects that defined the future state for the enterprise.

Eventually the (gas) bag had to burst and it did with indecisions and snafus pointing in his general direction; there was enough incriminating evidence that pinned him down to expose the lack of depth and expertise. While he was not unceremoniously booted out, until his last few weeks he continued to live up to his notorious ways spreading hot air, unable to reform or change. The exit created a positive vacuum that sent sighs of relief within the enterprise while the group of scared hypocrites worried about survival.

Collateral damage is a natural fallout of such incidents in an enterprise; the business had suffered production losses, broken supply chain, sales force missed the planned innovation and deployment of industry specific tools, the IT team saw attrition and delayed implementation of transformational projects, the CIO exited in disgust leaving behind a frustrated team, the Financial Controller parted ways and overall the growth slowed down with the string of bad decisions that the gas bagger had enforced with his coterie.

Enterprises have a lot of tolerance and resilience, they bounce back; the resultant dip however leaves them at a disadvantage with respect to what they could have otherwise achieved. Senior management when disconnected with ground realities or not accepting a bad hire, end up having to clean up the mess. Open communication, obligation to dissent, appears in almost every enterprise core values, rarely practiced in the true spirit, resulting in adverse impact, hurting people and performance in the long run.

Politicos next time !

Monday, April 18, 2016

In the corporate world, the unfit also survive and at times thrive

In every enterprise and almost every domain, roles and responsibilities have been evolving, some driven by global expansion, industry dynamics, technology driven changes in business, and customer demands. The biggest change has been the emergence of the CXO roles and their rapid evolution from a departmental or functional manager to an enterprise leader. Youngest among these is the role of the CIO has transformed at a faster clip than most others though some traits have become basic expectations.

Like every other function IT has not had the luxury of time to polish the rough edges and create a persona that grows over generations and gains acceptance with the rest of the organization; the fast-track pace of change in technology led to big shifts in expectations which also led to a clear divide between the CIOs in their ability to execute. The lines separated them into three broad buckets: leaders, followers, and laggards; and then a small group emerged over a period of time, the inept or gas-baggers or politicos, they had different names.

After a lull for long, the company had invested significantly in IT to catch up with the industry; spread over a couple of years the action jumpstarted their journey. IT and business teams worked together enjoying the momentum and associated benefits. Then again they went into slumber as if IT did not matter beyond what had already been implemented. The industry continued to make good progress; observers and vendors wondered what triggered the pause which extended for long. Not getting any clear answers they shifted focus elsewhere.

Time passed by and nothing seemed to matter for a while; strides made by competition and altered expectations from customers began to pinch with slowly declining growth rates and pressure on profitability. Parts of the business began to rue the inaction on part of IT to address their needs; no new ideas were evaluated or contributed since the departure of the earlier CIO. The crescendo of voices soon reached a level that merited and received the attention of the Management who decided to deep dive and find the reasons.

It was an interesting discussion between a Board member with an appreciation of technology, the CIO and the IT leadership team. He sought details about existing systems deployed, their use and effectiveness, the roadmap, new technology landscape impacting the industry, evaluations done, and benchmarking data with the industry. All fair questions, par for course for any reasonable person and CIO to be able to answer with ease, especially if he has been in the role for more than a couple of years.

We have been busy stabilizing the ERP system and managing the change requests from the business; there is no discipline on master data which keeps troubling all of us with multiple requests for change; the connectivity issues have made deployment of new solutions difficult; two key resources left in the last one year which has impacted progress on a few initiatives; business is not willing to deploy the new solution we took for marketing after the new marketing head joined; the stream of excuses flowed gushingly.

Interestingly the discussion side-stepped questions asked by the BM which he pointed out at the end of the meeting to the visibly squirming team. The CIO was granted resources sought to complete the tasks at hand and create the strategy and plan before the next meeting which was mutually agreed to. To the BM the lack of depth and ability was evident but he wanted to give the team time to absolve themselves; he did not want to base his actions only on first impressions and thus extended the rope a bit.

We deployed a new solution which business loves and we are scaling up; the team lead has been chosen to speak at a global conference. I have been busy getting bugs resolved in the core system with the vendor; I have escalated to the headquarters and they are working on this new set of bugs we have discovered. We have changed vendors on one front while we are shutting down the project that business did not want anymore. HR has not been able to provide the resources we want for some of the new projects.

The team joined the chorus which was abruptly stopped by the BM realizing that he shall again be starved of the confidence he sought in the team. The organization will have to take some tough calls. The above is just one manifestation of ineffective leadership demonstrated by an experienced IT professional who gained the role by accident and patronage, not necessarily by merit. Lacking the skills required for the CIO role, he could not maintain the fa├žade for long, the competency levels could not hold up the scrutiny.

Click for Gas-baggers and Politicos 

Monday, April 11, 2016

What has better value for Enterprises ? Research or Experience

The group collectively had over 300 years of experience represented at the table; the middle-aged (no one wants to be called old) C-level executives across companies of various sizes, geographies and industries were locked into a debate; a debate on how their experience represented higher value in comparison to reports published by market, vertical or horizontal research companies. Their demeanor trivializing insights presented in reports even when backed by empirical data captured through interactions with leaders like themselves.

Triggered by a much publicized research report which the middle management had embraced, the team had got together to assess its relevance to their company and themselves. Pedigree of the organization behind the report could not be faulted; the industry had taken the paper in question with open arms, benchmarking themselves with the mean and take lessons which they could apply. There were also companies who smirked at the postulations and deemed the report irrelevant to themselves, unwilling to take heed.

None present had participated directly though their teams had contributed to the industry wide research report; distributed evenly were people who had read the report and those who had not. Those who read it wanted to defend their stance wherever it differed from the report; those who did not read believed that it did not matter since they have been the doyens of the industry for many decades now and their experience cannot be questioned if at all by any report irrespective of who wrote it or what others believed.

Thus the meeting of the unconverted and fence-sitters called upon the authors to discuss the artefacts and inferences wanting to assert their individual and collective experience. The group demanded and received reverence by virtue of their clout and influence; they were the beacons for the industry, they were the captains, they had built the industry in the early days, they had coached and mentored many in the industry; some in the group had now become a pain with many clearly depicting Jurassic behavior.

The Analyst of no less years behind him faced the eclectic group along with his team of enthusiastic, young and nervous faces overawed in their presence. He had no lesser persona which the group acknowledged as he reciprocated warmth and respect. Having presented the report to many industry forums and companies, advising them on specifics, the Analyst exuded confidence and conviction. He was ready to engage the group to address their alternative views. Quickly thereafter the weapons were out and the debate started.

The future belongs to a new way of engaging customers at their terms through interconnected channels seamlessly; disintermediation is not the end, it is the beginning. Products and Services are intertwined to create new offerings not possible earlier, keep embracing change, keep adapting, keep learning, and keep running to stay relevant. Conventional wisdom is not enough, you need to straddle the old and new; past performance and glory will not get you to the future, so said the Analyst and Consultant.

Fads don’t move mountains, it needs a lot more than that; we have built industries brick by brick, customer by customer, providing them products and services for generations. Products have evolved with technology and so has the customer with times; that does not mean that the old way of doing business will go away. The market will divide into distinct segments catering to different customer expectations with some overlap. We will adapt at our own pace aligned to our customer needs, countered the industry lobby.

Both have a point ! Technology led disruption had shaken foundations though most have survived the onslaught from new business models. CIOs became powerful and then many did not scale to expectations resulting in opportunity for consultants to fill the gap; for other CXOs it was no different. The disrupted, they adapted to the new paradigm grudgingly; it was a matter of time that the dust settled down with growth again back on the anvil while money-losers struggle to change business models for long-term survival.

Do companies have the luxury of time to choose their pace and path of change ? Can leaders afford to shun external insights while they live within their microcosm ? The world has moved from insular decision making to crowd-sourcing ideas and learning. The hyper-connected world offers new ways of doing business, competing with old and new players, and understanding customers; technology as a foundation shall determine the ability of enterprises and industries future until a new wave again creates disruption !

Be open to ideas even if they are not your own, your longevity may depend on it !

Monday, April 04, 2016

The tale of two competing technology platforms inside an enterprise

The company (let’s call it A) was seeded in the era of client-server technologies and the inception of what became known as the standard for developing open systems. So naturally their technology foray included the technology stack that promised interoperability and ease of programming. Systems were developed in-house with a bunch of programmers working alongside the business, thus creating many fit for purpose solutions that helped scale up the business. Their growth story aided by their early focus on technology made them a player of reckoning.

One of their able competitors (why not B) started off with a few years decided to watch the results of A’s foray before taking a decision to invest. Years passed by and the turn of the millennium saw anxiety filled movement for compliance and then a drop in business triggered by dot-bust coupled with further slowdown due to terrorist activity. By the time B did get started taking nascent steps into the world of technology, a newer framework was gaining popularity as an alternative making a compelling case for adoption.

By now A was already reaping the benefits of an early start giving them resilience and efficiency that a good technology solution can provide. They broke into the top 10 by the time B was just about stabilizing technology solutions to move to fast track growth path. Both grew at a fast clip from there on though the gap kept growing with A enjoying the benefit of base effect. Each had created specific market differentiators as they competed head on and survived the arrival and exit of some major global competitors.

A decade later the market had changed; heavy investments in technology by some big companies and newer technology enabled startups and disruptors started eating away market share from both. While they continued to stay profitable they were relegated to a marginal player status. Call it providence or just competitive landscape, A & B were finding it difficult to change, straightjacketed by their people and process. Technology alone was unable to pull them out of the quagmire they found themselves in.

Market forces led to consolidation of the industry and the founders of A & B who were healthy competitors decided to merge their business operations to create larger play. Due diligence and valuations aside, both believed that their technologies provided them the platform on which they had competed and created a name for themselves. In a merger of equals who decides on the prevalence of process and technology while the people were relatively easy to put into different buckets to rationalize.

Thus began the discussion and debate between the survival of technology landscape, the business applications, and the IT infrastructure, none willing to give a quarter. Both IT teams presented the merits of their choices to the combined management who defended their IT architectures and wanted their solutions to become the solution of choice. Both portrayed passionate attachment to their investments to the extent that rational thought was kept aside; so they decided to call in a consultant for mediation.

The consultant, a veteran with experience of many mergers and acquisitions and more than a score years behind him agreed to assist in resolution of the seemingly childish conflict. He started by asking some tough questions on the intent and rationale behind the merger, the new GTM (Go-To-Market) positioning, the target customers, competitive landscape, and finally team competencies to support the chosen solution. He opined that these shall determine the victor and survivor between the battles of technology solutions.

They agreed to drop their earlier arguments and align with the direction set by the consultant as the way forward. After all there was no direct impact to their business or customers due to technology frameworks and to that extent they were chasing a red herring driven by ego, otherwise a non-issue. Saner minds now applied rigor to determine the best option including a hybrid approach if necessary to solving the problem of technology choice. The solution that emerged gave them the benefit they wanted from technology.

Which solution stack finally won ? Does it matter ? What matters is that the decision was taken the way it should have in the initial stages by evaluating business benefit and connect to customers; you cannot go wrong with such criteria as compared to evaluating merits of one technology stack versus another. Forget IT folks, today business leaders also get enamored by smooth talking technology sales people who create inane metrics for assessment and are able to influence the search engine enabled technology decision makers.